Fahamu Pecou on his Paris show, cowrie shells and Nikes, and raising a Black son

Fahamu Pecou's painting "Back O'Da Bus" is on show this month in his solo exhibit at Backslash Gallery in Paris. (Photos courtesy of the artist and Backslash)

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Fahamu Pecou's painting "Back O'Da Bus" is on show this month in his solo exhibit at Backslash Gallery in Paris. (Photos courtesy of the artist and Backslash)

Fahamu Pecou, the Atlanta-based artist and scholar, often jokes that if he wasn’t a painter he’d probably be a rapper, owing to the improvisational and rhythmic instincts which have always guided his hand. But once he became a father, it marked a shift in perspective that has been written all over his canvases ever since.

“When my son, Ngozi, was born I felt an immediate sense of inadequacy,” says Pecou. “I realized the weight of the responsibility of raising a Black boy in this society and became keenly aware of the fact that I’d have significant influence over how my son saw himself. In that moment, I decided to challenge myself and the community around me to think more broadly about our ideas of Black masculinity . . . and use my work as a way to expand the narratives around Black identity.”

ExploreFahamu Pecou: Art of survival

His observations on hip-hop, fine art and pop-culture representations of Blackness are core tenets of his work. As an educator, he developed (ad)Vantage Point, a narrative-based arts curriculum focused on Black male youth. He is the founding director of the African Diaspora Art Museum of Atlanta and was recently named the inaugural artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Beltline.

His large-scale paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art and Culture, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the High Museum of Art, among others.

Pecou’s latest solo show, “People’s Instinctive Travels,” opened June 11 at Backslash contemporary gallery in Paris. It runs through July 16.

On the eve of his departure to France, the artist talked with ArtsATL about finding common ground far from home; the significance of mixing cowrie shells with Nikes; and the joy of exploding preconceptions.

Q: Isabel Wilkerson has said that one of the biggest revelations during her worldwide book tours for “The Warmth of Other Suns” was the cross-section of people who said “this is the story of my family!,” regardless of their nationality or race. As someone who has spoken at conferences, domestically and abroad, about the place of the Black man in Western societies, have you experienced the same reaction from people who are not Black yet identify on a profound level with the subjects in your paintings?

A: Most certainly! I always feel a slight bit of trepidation when presenting my work outside the United States — wondering if people will understand the innuendo and subtleties that are embedded in the work. Without fail, I often find that audiences, especially in Europe, are able to engage in the work in really meaningful ways despite not having shared my life experiences. But they understand the questions about identity; deep philosophical interrogations of who we are and the impacts of colonialism; the impact of intermingling with people from other nationalities and experiences.

I even find that the most obscure reference to a hip-hop lyric in my painting does not escape a viewer from Berlin or Stockholm who’ll say: ‘Oh. That’s from De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, track three,’ and it always blows my mind. It shows me that people are really engaged in the work and sensitive to subtext.

Q: A commingling of American iconography with decorative elements from West Africa (cowrie shells, raffia shawls and ceremonial masks) are a signature of your paintings. What’s your thinking behind the mashup?

A: Making connections between African cultural retentions and contemporary expressions of Blackness is about showing that we are more than what the world has suggested or imposed upon us [Black people].

I’m thinking about collective unconsciousness and what happens when we have been cut off from a cultural expression and language that’s still manifest in our bodies. I think about the ways in which Black subjectivity has been marginalized and oppressed, and devalued or underprivileged.

By combining and drawing out these African cultural retentions that we find in everyday Black performance, I am pointing back to the idea of agency and power and majesty and beauty that resist the white supremacist idea of Blackness as being negative or undesirable.

Q: Your subjects tend to be long-limbed and slender with well-defined musculature. What is it about this particular body type that you like to revisit as an artist?

A: The male figure in most of my works is typically me, but they’re not intended to be self-portraits. Rather, I’m viewing them as characters in performance — the way an actor would take on a role. By rendering the reflectiveness and shine on the skin, I’m taking things that have been devalued or rendered invisible and making them visible and therefore valuable by highlighting the beauty in them.

The expressiveness and gestures of the body point to my fascination with music, movement and dance. Whether I’m painting or drawing, it’s about the rhythm of the movement, the rhythm of the composition, the rhythm of the colors balancing and playing off of one another.

Q: What do you want the visitor’s takeaway to be after spending time with subjects in your paintings?

A: When I walk into a room, before I’m Fahamu, I’m a Black man. Most often, people will adjust themselves to deal with me based on their perception of what a Black man is. And, oftentimes, those perceptions are limiting and very flat. I want my work to inspire conversation and get people to see things from a perspective they might not have considered or even imagined. While my experience is specific, I think my desire to explode stereotypes and misconceptions from the inside out is universal.


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